Of Power Chords and Presidential Change
A review of the Rock Against Bush series reveals an inspiring if conflicted collection
By Jonathan Stein, Harvard University

Those looking for music that mixes politics and melodies need look no further: the long drought of politically and socially minded rock and roll that reaches back as far as the Vietnam War (with a mid- to late-90’s break for Rage Against the Machine) has been brought to an end by Fat Wreck Chords’ Rock Against Bush series. The two volume series, which supplies a CD, a DVD, and content-filled liner notes with the purchase of either volume, provides a forum for young, angry artists that want their listeners to bob their heads and think with them at the same time. The liner notes and video clips provide intensely political content that at times borders on propaganda, but the music is so often touchingly poetic and subtly political that the production comes off as a balanced and worthwhile whole.

The liner notes is something of a left-wing manifesto, easy to refute by the informed right and easy to cringe at by the moderate left. Its overt partisanship is so relentless that the reader begins to feel that the writers would stretch the truth if it strengthened their case. To an extent, the notes are discomforting to read, akin to watching someone trying so hard to be friendly they drive everyone away. And, unfortunately, some of the facts are simply wrong. For example, the statement, “The CIA and FBI both told Bush that there was no connection between Iraq and 9/11 and that there were probably no weapons of mass destruction” contradicts former CIA director George Tenet’s well-publicized statement that the case for WMD’s was a “slam dunk.”

Additionally, the danger of overstatement rears its ugly head time and time again. “Our government has been taken over by evil men,” for example, uses the black-and-white oversimplifications so common to Bush’s post-9/11 rhetoric, the same rhetoric that degraded the national discourse and led the rest of the world to believe we were guided by a stubborn arrogance. Further, this is only one in a long list of unsubstantiated statements that ring fruitlessly hollow to anyone seeking evidence, context or nuance.

But the liner notes never strays far from language its readers find more acceptable. Fat Mike, who pens the introduction and is the bassist for punk band NOFX, knows the vocabulary his audience can grove with, and makes sure to add just enough of the inane and goofy to insure that people stay engaged. For example, in the music video for “Franco Un-American” by NOFX (on the DVD), Howard Zinn and Noam Chomsky references are followed by a sign that says “Beer Not Bombs.” And because the compliers realize their audience is not accustomed to active participation in the political process, pleas about waking up and tuning in and statements about the ease with which someone can educate themselves litter the albums. “Franco Un-American” again provides a good example. It starts with “Let the whales worry about the poisons in the sea/ Outside of California, it’s foreign policy/ I don’t want changes, I have no reactions/ Your dilemmas are my distractions” and ends with “I want to move north and be a Canadian/ Or hang down low with the nice Australians/ I don’t want to be another ’i-don’t-care-ican.’” The end result is a charming mix of intelligence and buffoonery, pleading and politics.

The music of the series beats to a different drum. Rarely preachy or didactic, the music never sounds like a campaign anthem for John Kerry. There are no standard talking points or familiarly Democratic themes. Instead, the songs touch on standing up, speaking out, fear, apathy and control. They give a fairly full treatment to the government’s ability and willingness to make peace and war, and an individual’s chances of helping one or the other come about. Furthermore, the lyrics of the songs are more poetry than editorial, and the albums are stronger as a result. In “Heaven is Falling,” The Ataris say “God I want to be a man/ but I don't want to die with a rifle in my hand/ and as the planes blacken the sky/ it sounds like heaven is falling.” The lines are an elegant summation of the argument that launching bombs that will create civilian casualties, when other options have yet to be exhausted, contradicts the tenets of the religious faith that those in power say they believe. The liner notes could not and do not say it better.

The song are relatively scattered in their content. Although some write (oddly, considering the point of the collection) about the well-trodden topics of unrequited love and teen angst, bands like Bad Religion, Anti-Flag, No Use for a Name, The Offspring, and RX Bandits address directly both domestic policy and foreign affairs. At one point Anti-Flag juxtaposes an audio clip about peace from a Catholic priest with a guttural scream from the lead singer and follows with the shouted refrain, “Take our rights back! Stand up for Liberty!” Anti-Flag, like the other bands on the comp, seems to endorse both peace and anger, suggesting that the first can only be won with a healthy dose of the second. In promoting pacifism, you can’t be pacifistic.

That idea gets to the heart of the collection itself. From the liner notes, to the excellent DVD content, to the music itself, the albums seem to be shouting that it’s time for punk audiences to wake up and demand change. Or as RX Bandits put it in their song Overcome (The Recapitulation), “I can’t wait for the day when I hear us all screaming/ I can’t wait for the day when I hear us all singing together.”

For more information on how punk rock is getting political, visit www.punkvoter.com. To buy the Rock Against Bush series at a dissemination-conducive price of $6 per disc, go to www.fatwreckchords.com.


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